Court decision stops annexations

SNOQUALMIE - Call it a governmental catch-22.

The state Supreme Court recently ruled that the petition method of annexing land by cities was unconstitutional, saying it favors owners of highly valued land over neighbors with lesser-valued property.

While annexation by petition is the most popular way to increase a city's area, other options are still available, including holding an election where residents can vote on whether they want to be folded into a city's limits.

But herein lies the rub: If the land to be annexed is owned by one person or business - say a commercial development company - and no one lives there, who's going to vote in the election?

That's the question facing Snoqualmie and two large projects that involve annexation, Snoqualmie Ridge II and the Salish Lodge and Spa's planned hotel and conference center. Both of them are now in a state of legal limbo following the Supreme Court decision.

"It didn't make my day," said Rachel Nathanson of Nathanson Associates after hearing about the ruling. She is overseeing the Salish's project to build a 250-room hotel and conference center across State Route 202 from the existing lodge.

The Salish is asking the city to annex 40 acres, which are inside its urban growth area. The hotel and conference center would be constructed on the larger of the two parcels the Salish owns.

"The issue here is [the Supreme Court] completely restricted the ability to annex property where there are no residents," Nathanson said.

Snoqualmie Ridge II involves developing the second phase of the master-planned community, where an as-yet undetermined number houses would be constructed on about 725 acres south of the existing development. The city agreed to consider annexing the land in exchange for Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Co. paying the bulk of the $13.3 million cost of the Snoqualmie Preservation Initiative.

"It's not slowing down our process," said Snoqualmie Ridge General Manager George Sherwin, who added that plans for developing the second phase would have to be much further along before the decision impacted the project.

The petition method of annexation depends largely on the valuation of the land to be annexed. The process works like this: A property owner, or owners, whose land comprises 10 percent of an area's assessed valuation can send a letter of intention to a city to have the area annexed.

If the city council approves the letter of intention, a petition for annexation is submitted. That petition represents owners whose lands equal 60 percent or more of an area's assessed valuation.

But the Supreme Court said annexation by petition, which has been around since 1945, was unconstitutional since owners of lesser-valued land have no say in the annexation, stating in its decision that "because the petition method of annexation grants owners of highly valued property a privilege not afforded to other similarly situated parties, we hold that it violates [the state Constitution]."

Snoqualmie City Attorney Pat Anderson agrees with the court's logic, but for situations like Snoqualmie Ridge II and the Salish expansion project - where the land has one owner and no residents live on it - the decision undermines cities' ability to grow.

"For both of those, as far as I can see, the annexation cannot be completed until either the Supreme Court clarifies its opinion ... or the Legislature comes up with a legislative fix," he said.

The cities involved in the Supreme Court case, Yakima and Moses Lake, are expected to ask the Supreme Court justices to reconsider their decision. Anderson has written a declaration on behalf of the motion to reconsider, detailing the two potential annexations in Snoqualmie.

"I assume it will get fixed. It's too big of an issue not to get fixed," he said.

But it may take awhile to arrive at a solution. The Supreme Court is not known for its expeditiousness; and with legislators working to prevent Olympia from drowning in red ink, modifying the petition method of annexation may not be high on their priority lists.

Dave Catterson, a municipal government analyst with the Association of Washington Cities, said Snoqualmie isn't alone in trying to determine the implications of the Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling issued March 14.

"Definitely there are a lot of petition annexations in progress around the state," he said.

"Really, there are no options available to [cities] at this point."

Another unintended victim of the decision may be cities' growth targets, as laid out in the state's Growth Management Act (GMA). Without petition annexation, Snoqualmie may not realize the 10,000 residents expected to live within city limits by 2014.

"The way we have been able to meet our GMA growth targets is through petition annexation," Anderson said.

The city attorney explained that some work could still be done regarding the annexation petitions, such as creating an annexation implementation plan and designating the zoning of the area to be annexed, although the designation wouldn't become effective until the land is formally annexed.

"We would do everything we [normally] do except the one thing prohibited, which is annexation," Anderson said.

Nathanson will continue to shepherd the annexation petition through Planning Commission and City Council deliberations. While she was able to joke that she may live in a tent on the Salish property if the city is forced to hold an election for the proposed annexation, she's disappointed the project she has worked on for so long could be delayed.

"This does not in any way apply to our site. It's one owner; we're not dragging anyone else along with us," she said.

You can reach Barry Rochford at (425) 888-2311, or e-mail him at barry.rochford

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